Featuring tender ballads and classic swing, the jazz pianist’s trio set was an impeccable performance full of beauty and joy.
By Michael J. West | Contributing reporter Washington Post
He didn’t mean to, but Monty Alexander put this critic in the hot seat on Thursday night.
“In 1972, I was 27,” he explained from the bandstand at Georgetown’s Blues Alley. “I was playing the piano here in 1972.” As evidence, he pulled out a foam board blowup of a 1972 review from this newspaper.
“By golly, we’re gonna put it in the window,” he said. “So on your way out, if you want to have a look at this review thing, it’ll be there.”
Thus giving me a tough act to follow. The good news is that Alexander’s trio set was a triumph, an impeccable performance full of beauty and joy.
Opening with a rippling take on the hymn “Abide With Me,” the pianist and his trio (bassist Luke Sellick and drummer Jason Brown) slid easily from there to his original “E Pluribus Unum.” The tune shifted back and forth between a simple, funky theme and swinging improv sections. Soon after came a jaunty bossa nova highlighted by a smart solo from Sellick. A creeping, crawling “Night Mist Blues” gave way to the calypso “Love Notes.” “I don’t know much music, chords, arpeggios, all those things,” Alexander had remarked at the top of the set — he knows rhythm, though, and paid careful attention to its details.
Still, most of the set was determined, classic swing. Alexander’s “You Can See” was completely in the pocket, featuring one of the pianist’s best marathon solos as well as a textured, melodic one by Brown. The band also charged through Miles Davis’s “Milestones” with high octane, throwing in some ragtime licks for good measure, and put a streamlined tread under the simultaneously somber and blissful “Renewal.” Two tender ballads, Michel Legrand’s gorgeous “Summer of ‘42” and the standard “Where Is Love,” punctuated the swing tunes.
The pianist also took the opportunity to polish his raconteur chops. In addition to an opening monologue about his life in music, he told another story about his ’72 stand at the club: One in which Frank Sinatra came to hear him. “He was huge. He was Jay-Z at that time,” Alexander joked. “And I know that he’s listening intently to me, but there’s these two people in the corner yap-yap-yapping. And from Frank’s table, all I hear is ‘shut up!’”
In this packed house, Sinatra or no Sinatra, no one dared chat through the set. Their attention was richly rewarded.
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